By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“Only a Gibson is Good Enough” was the popular guitar brand’s slogan. Coined in the 1940s, the phrase appeared prominently on the golden banners adorning the headstocks of Gibson's World War II guitars. While the catchy motto may sound familiar, most know little about what went into producing the guitars that became known as “Banners.” In his new book “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of the Extraordinary Women & the ‘Banner’ Gibson Guitars They Built During WWII,” guitarist John Thomas reveals just that. Now recognized as some of the finest acoustic guitars ever created, Banners were constructed largely by young Michigan women who had no prior training in musical instrument production.
Today, right here in Brooklyn, you can find the spiritual descendants of the Kalamazoo Gals. At Retrofret Vintage Guitars, located in Gowanus, Head of Repairs Mamie Minch and her team – which includes two other female repair technicians – are hard at work repairing and restoring fine vintage guitars. Experts in what is traditionally a male-dominated business, Minch and her staff manage the repair work in the shop.
Excited by Retrofret’s connection to the World War II story that Thomas’ book chronicles, Minch and Retrofret owner Steve Uhrik opened up their shop to celebrate the release of “Kalamazoo Gals” in early March. Thomas was thrilled to have found the perfect space for his book launch party. “After meeting Mamie Minch, the head of Retrofret's repair shop and a modern Kalamazoo Gal, I knew that I had to do a book signing at the shop,” Thomas told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. At the signing, the author facilitated a discussion about the history of Banner guitars, while audience members were able to meet Minch and her team – women much like those described in the book.
Thomas was inspired to write “Kalamazoo Gals” after gathering inconsistent snippets of information while researching freelance articles for music magazines. He found a WWII-era photograph of about seventy women standing in front of Gibson's Kalamazoo factory. He then came across a 1973 book written by Gibson’s in-house historian who had worked as company personnel director during WWII. Curiously, this official history reported that Gibson had built no guitars during WWII.
Yet another book, “Gibson’s Fabulous Flattops” from 1984, reported that Gibson “did build a few guitars during the war that were of exceptional quality.” Intrigued, Thomas made his way to Gibson’s corporate headquarters in Nashville where he continued his research. There, he discovered that Gibson produced nearly 25,000 musical instruments during the war.
Determined to solve the mystery in his conflicting findings, Thomas began searching for the women in the photograph he’d found. He wound up finding twelve of them and shaped his book around their story. “They walked into Gibson in January, 1942, just when Glenn Miller's ‘I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo’ hit number one on the hit parade. So, I also had a book title,” Thomas said.
Minch tells the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that before reading Thomas’ book, she assumed that women must have played a role in producing Gibson guitars during the war, as most manufacturing jobs at that time depended on female labor. What she didn’t realize was the extent to which women helped in constructing the instruments; in fact, the Gibson factory was run and staffed almost entirely by women.
Minch doesn’t seem to mind being a female in a traditionally male-dominated business. Having always loved guitars, as well as tinkering with materials, she is thrilled to have found what she considers to be a “dream job.” “As far as being a woman in a largely male field, my shop is a bit of a haven. We are about 50/50 over here. The first year or so I was doing this, I was pretty aware of customers’ hang-ups about my being both young and female…[but] I feel like at this point, I've established myself as a serious guitar technician with lots of good recommendations behind me.”
Indeed, Minch has worked her way up in the business, earning her current title of Head of Repairs. Like with any job, Minch certainly faces some obstacles. “I could tell you some stories about jerky or ignorant customers if you'd like, make no mistake – but I'd rather talk about fixing guitars.”